Elena Perlino – A Sea of Light

Elena Perlino

A Sea Of Light


Essay foreword by Machiel Botman

“Let’s call it the yellow photograph for now: a street sign with half an arrow, a woman touching the sign and looking at where the arrow points. Behind it all a yellow sea of light, a colored landscape, cityscape that is too good to be true.

(who-ever said that things must be true)

Elena Perlino’s photographs are not carefully constructed images, all have the sensation of immediacy, as if she is passing by all the time. One might call what she passes by ‘little moments’ that, had she not been there, would have stayed unnoticed. In a world where everything is constructed, reality and fantasy, these ‘little moments’ escape us often, and when someone shows them to us we might not accept them.
Some make it easy for us, Richard Avedon’s Boy and tree in Italy is one of these beautiful floating moments, but all the same boy and tree are carefully orchestrated in a pose that we know, that we have come to accept. Perlino’s photographs are made of different stuff and at first glance one might say she does not make it easy on us.

The woman in the yellow photograph seems to accept reality as it is, by looking into the obvious direction where the arrow points. Someone who knows about clothes might tell us the woman is upper-class and waiting for a taxi. That’s where the truth begins and ends and begins again.
To me this woman is an immigrant, coming from yellow country, waiting to be collected to go somewhere else, somewhere where all is supposed to be better, where the sun always shines. Yellow country is still very much part of her, that’s where she is rooted, that’s where she is leaving behind those she loves, those she hates. Yellow country still follows her and I am afraid it always will.



Photographs like this always make me wonder. Where does the photographer come from, where does she go? Is Elena from yellow country, collecting proof some people are leaving? Or is she a future girl, pulling in people with invisible threads?
Good photography, like good writing, or good cinema, leaves the viewer free to do as he wants and in that way Perlino’s images, perhaps one more than the other, do not make it hard on us at all.
She has paved wide roads for us to walk on, with lots of light and exotic colors, with the presence of people, she is a people girl. There are gas stations staring at us with big eyes that look like lights, there is a man about to touch the cigarette to rid it of too much ash, there is a nude woman showing a muscle behind her skin, there are ghosts in the street, shit. But apart from what there is, we are free to make our own context, to decide what it all means. Until not very long ago, this would freak out the sensible world because this maker fits in no box. I hope dearly that by now we can accept these images as strong and beautiful gifts that need no explanation, that just need a little imagination.

My only worry concerns the messenger, the photographer if you like. She appears to be a lonely soul, detached from then and there – I hope she accepts these gifts as means to stop now and then, to get out and touch.”




Elena Perlino (b.1972) grew up in Piedmont, Italy. She graduated with a degree in History and Cinema from the University of Turin and attended at Reflexions Masterclass in Paris. Since 2003 Elena has been working on human trafficking and migration in the Mediterranean area. She was selected as a Nominee for Magnum Emergency Fund 2011.

Elena Perlino is currently running a photography project about Nigerian trafficking on Kickstarter.


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Elena Perlino

50 Responses to “Elena Perlino – A Sea of Light”

  • Too much fuzzy, blurry, weird colors for my taste. Loses impact when used exclusively.

  • I actually like the consistency of blurry, weird colors. Not sure, if this would work in a “hybrid” essay.
    However, as usual some pictures work better than others.
    I like 7, 8, 15, 16 very much, with 16 being my favourite.

  • I’m going to need help with this one. Perhaps I’m over analyzing this essay, searching for the unnecessary and the meaning is right in front of my nose. But right now I don’t get it, and it irritates me, as I get the feeling I’m missing out on something.

  • You’ve lost me. I don’t get the point of these at all.

  • Поздравляю Елена! Elena is one of those nice examples how photographers can make it, and gain international recognition. To me this essay is interesting, obviously artsy and quite faraway from documentary nature of traditional photography… but Elena’s work in Nigeria is even more interesting to me. While in this essay my favorite images are 6, 8, 11, 20

    Best wishes

  • John R. Fulton Jr.

    Yes. Excellent. Love the pictures. Charles Harbutt said to judge a picture ask, “Is life like that?”. I feel side-ways glances, quick moments and even a cinematic feel. Thanks for your vision, Elena Perlino!

  • I really like a third of these and the rest not so much. I guess they must be right on the edge of what I think is wonderfully creative and painterly and what I think is something else.

  • Paul..

    forget words.. just feel.. let go of everything else, just feel..

    13 doesn’t work for me, the feel throughout the others is an up and down, slow and fast.. great..

  • I had a teacher who used to say; ”sometimes we want to see a meaning so much that we forget to look, sit down, shut the fuck and look at it just for the sake of it”

    I don’t think theres a need for a big meaning, for me it’s like a dream in slow motion where you see fleeting images. You’re not suppose to understand whats going on, you’re just suppose to let go and watch. It’s the kind of essay that you need look at slowly and while you’re doing it, the message will sink in, or not hahaha.

  • I do like the style. Lots of momentum, and the blurring shaky photos create evoke kind of grungy, grainy, low-budget indy film quality. Though when I see essays like this one where the images appear purposefully vague and low-tech it makes me wonder what the artistic process is behind them. The artist statement, not truly an artist’s statement but rather an essay about the project by somebody else, uses the vernacular of fine art… fair for the collection of photos.. but also, for reasons I can’t quite explain, a bit alienating. I’m left wanting to know more. Are these photographs that are the result of a very deliberate situation? or were they snapshots that happened to be edited into an essay? I wonder whether I should ask these questions or if they are merely my own limitations of understanding fine art photography (which I often enjoy perusing but rarely seem to touch me emotionally) Can you be deliberate about loosely shot compositions in a loosely explained project? Elena has some serious skill with photography, after taking a look at her other work there is no doubt in my mind. Her reportage work is serious and defined but stylistically very different from what appears here on Burn. Sometimes I can’t help but feel blurry, dark, photographs are automatically equated to art.. and sometimes it feels like a cop out.

  • Congratulations, Elena!
    Many of these situations/feelings look familiar to me, sort of side glances I leave behind during each day. A parallel world, though crying its unperceived existence (or perceived, at the most, as a part of the blurred landscape outside the window). Love #16. I immediately remembered your previous essay published on Burn (des corps dan la ville) and also I think that your kickstarter project is great: hope you’ll get it full funded. Buona fortuna

  • Thank you all for your comments! It`s always interesting and challenging to see how different visions give new perspectives to your work and to photography in general.

    In the process of selecting images I try to answer to one simple question: is there anything here that transmits something or not? Not necessarily good feelings. It has to happen anytime I look… after six months, one year. If the answer is yes, I keep the image.

  • JIM: thank you very much for you comment. In this particular case I really enjoyed the fact that a lot of space is left for imagination. Just like an architect can often communicate more with a simply hand sketch than with a photo realistic rendering. In other work the fuzziness doesn`t work, such as in the project I realized on Nigerian trafficking.

  • MATT: I agree that blurry, dark photographs cannot be automatically equated to art.
    I guess it depends on what the priority is in that moment. Describing a situation as precisely as possible? Or accepting that something cannot be expressed, not said… You are left wanting to know more. That to me is good.

  • Congratulations Elena

    I absolutely love this. I agree with John jr., your cinema background shows. These pictures are visually very rich. I love photographs that draw us in, ask us questions, and invite us to make up our own stories. I can visualize this with a sound track and a narration, weaving some sort of drama or as a more abstract dream sequence. I’m left wanting more. This is beautifully done.

    There are some great images not included here that appear on your site version. The only one here that I would leave out is the black and white. It is a nice image, but mixing black and white and colour is a bit problematic for me in that it draws attention to itself merely by that fact that it is black and white.

    Good luck with your Nigerian project.

  • I’m with Paul on this one…I feel like I’m missing something! I can’t quite understand it and it’s a bit frustrating. I like what Eva said…just feel…and yes…i feel some of them but there’s that nagging feeling that I must grasp this work intellectually and that leaves me empty handed sort of speaking.
    #1 and #15 are by far my favorites! I need a lot more time to chew and digest these.

    I also remember (like abele pointed out before me) your “des corps dan la ville” essay here awhile back.
    I really loved it!


    how do you feel when you see Koudelka’s “Exiles”? of course by now you KNOW it is Koudelka…but what if you did not know? what is with the title Exiles anyway? if i just ran those apparently disparate pictures here as an essay, would you feel the same as you do here with Elena? not challenging, just curious..or Anders Petersen? are you not seeing the pictures, or you are not seeing the pictures “together” ? ….it is interesting how different readers here see this…totally connected with the work, or totally not…interesting…

  • David,

    In all honesty I know who Koudelka is but I have not seen Exiles as a book…as a matter of fact I have not seen many books and it’s something that I am slowly changing…
    With that said I still understand your point, it’s crystal clear. It’s something I think about all the time. I see works by known names and I see works by no names that are equally as good.

    I still question everything I see wether from a legend or an unknown. There are so many factors to take under consideration when the work does not speak to you right away. What is the intention behind it, is it purely conceptual, the motives, the place blah blah blah but those are the sort of things that float in my mind when I don’t get it right away.

    5,10,17,22 I have no idea what to think of those. That is what confuses me. I would love to hear from Elena and you David about them.
    As a whole I sort of get a feeling for it. The more I see it the more I like it but that does not mean I comprehend it.

    Alec Soth “the last days of W” resonated with me right away for example…not comparing the two but somehow it reminds me of it.

  • Carlo..

    To feel it foes not mean to comprehend it, I have no need and no desire at all to know what Elena wanted to tell me here, I have not read ghe text and will do so only after watching the essay for many more times.. I can ferl and dream and be in my own world looking at the pictures, with no need to explain to myself why this works to me.. this happens rarely, and it’s a joy when it does.. makes sense? No. Do I care? No. Should I? Perhaps.. but all I want here is to go where the pictures take me, free to do so..

  • Typing on the phone, sorry..

  • David…

    You’re quite right as I love Anders Petersen’s books especially French kiss and yes I have no idea what it really is about and you’re quite that right deep down it doesn’t really bother me knowing the reason behind it, because I just love the images and where it takes me. Same sort of thing with Pinkhassov’s Sightwalk I just flow and
    I’ve watched this essay a couple of more times and it’s slowly growing on me as I start to just feel and let my own ideas and story evolve around these pictures.
    Maybe this way of photography is very Zen like.
    And just like Carlo I would love to read more of Eva, Elena and your thoughts on this style of work, it would really be a big help.

  • Eva,

    You have no need to comprehend because you got it right away….as for me since I did not get it my mind is trying to make up for it. Know what I mean?
    The brain is trying to understand what the heart does not feel.
    I know what you mean about “feeling” I have shot a few where there is a captured feeling at least to me.

  • John R. Fulton Jr.

    When I was an photo intern in Topeka, Kansas I was trying to figure out a picture published–I think in “Infinity” magazine–so I asked one of the staff photographers named Mark Godfrey. I asked him something about “why” this picture? I didn’t get it. Mark, never one to over-verbalize, simply looked at the picture and said, “why not”. Oddly this has stuck with me. It actually opened my eyes to the possibilities of photography. Pictures are pictures. Words are words. Sometimes words cannot adequately explain pictures.
    “Exiles” is a must-see. To me it is one of the strongest ‘photo’ books published in the 20th century! When I saw it upon publication it was like getting hit–visually–with a baseball bat.
    Good luck to all and I hope you burnians don’t mind my occasional ramblings.

  • Fantastic! Fresh organic juicy…
    like a nice green detox juice with lemon and ginger…
    i really loved this one!
    congrats, havent read any comments, words, artist statements, bio , name nothing, nada…
    now im gonna go up and read the readable part..
    but the visible part, yes makes my day..
    At last , a photographer that accepts that a camera is not just a Machine with perfect sensors, accuracy, high iso and calibration buttons…
    i like what i see here coz i dont feel that a camera shot it..it feels to me that the eye/soul did the work.
    Thank you!

  • to make myself clear: thats how “we” usually “see” things but the camera will “line it” so “perfectly” that takes the “reality” away…over here the camera is NOT an obstruct, or an obstacle anymore with some annoying fake “accuracy”… I see clear here because the photographer “opened the door”, did not create “closed pictures”, im “allowed” to my own interpretation, therefore i exist, i PARTICIPATE
    …and that is fantastic.

  • In other words: i fear being “bored”..so i examined the: when do i get “bored”????…
    i realized that this “boredom” usually arrives/occurs when im just the “audience”, the couch potato that holds my pop corn tight in one hand and my tv control on the other..
    In this essay above i love “the looseness” that allows my subconscious to “enter and play”..

    So all the remind me THE NEW DAH BOOK (RIO BOOK) THAT COMING SOON…
    i love it coz it lets you “play”, “create”, not just passively turn pages around…in a closed ay , forced to accept what the creator created…
    no no no..Art is not Religion..it should never tell you what to think, or what to decide..
    You should decide what you “need”
    A great artist can let you do that!!!!DAH did it with “Rio book”..

  • OK I’m going to write something that might sound a little silly, but it’s the only way I’ll manage to explain it. How does one recognize good from bad in this style of photography? I ask this question because I guess the difference between good and bad must be or maybe quite a fine line. Personally in music I have no problems in recognizing for example in jazz when someone is playing a load of notes and it’s really not taking me anywhere. On the other hand I can recognize somehow (it’s a bit like intuition these days) when it may sound like a load of notes but it is working. The first time I heard John Coltrane’s music I heard it on a car radio; I must of been about sixteen years old but I had already studied jazz and classical harmony. Problem was one of my teachers just didn’t dig Coltrane, so I had never been exposed to that kind of playing, when I heard those sounds it stopped me in my tracks and until it didn’t finish I had no idea who it was, but I knew the guy was good. Well I can’t do that in photography I always have doubts. Same thing with the difference between a guitarist who is an excellent craftsmen and a guitarist who really is an artist, I can tell straight away or at least I have an opinion which I can debate and I feel sure about. Not so with photography.

  • Carlo…..

    I am here to answer your questions.

    Once said so…I don’t know if explaining things about a picture, can help you to like it. You don’t necessarily need to like it.
    Let’s put it this way…it’s just like when you are dating for the first time a woman your friends talked to you a lot about.
    You won’t necessarily like her because you know everything about her. You need and alchemy that goes beyond the words.
    If that stuff it’s not there…there is no way any word will ever make it possible.

    About the pictures:

    I realized that I was pretty interested in lights, colours and body language mixing together and generating something that was not there before.
    I will try to talk to you about the precise moment that made me decide to take the picture I took.

    N.5 Paris, in the underground. A lot of darkness all over and all in a sudden my eyes fall on two black women sitting in a corner, as two silhouettes coming out of a transparent glass. They don’t look real. I get close and take the picture you see.

    N.10 Genoa harbour. It’s night time. I am waiting and staring at an agaves just in front of the public shower. A guy passes by inside, and those three elements together make me decide to press the camera button. I guess because everything around was so dark, silent, still and dead, that that tiny light, with the human presence and the vivid green of the plant got my total attention, as a fresh sign of life.

    N.17 Piedmont, Cuneo. I live in country-side area. I saw a few times this herd of cows on the side of the street. The blue light get used in order to make the animals produce more milk. You could see it one mile away. The surreal element got my attention here and after spending a whole evening with the farmers and the blue cows, I realized this image on my way to the car.

    N.22 Turin, industrial area. Here again I had to stop the car while I was driving, to put on the film something unexpected. In this case the combination and the movement that the clouds where realizing with the iron structure.

  • How does one recognize good from bad ….???
    Paul, think “beyond” that dualism trap: “good or bad”

    think beyond “good and evil”

    “Jenseits von Gut und Böse”- Nietzsche
    ( The work moves into the realm “beyond good and evil” in the sense of leaving behind the traditional morality which Nietzsche subjects to a destructive critique in favour of what he regards as an affirmative approach that fearlessly confronts the perspectival nature of knowledge and the perilous condition of the modern individual.)


  • Carlo….

    …Lucky me you didn’t have any problem with the N.11.

  • Elena,

    Thank you so much for answering!
    As a matter of fact, now that you have explained those moments in the photos I mentioned has made me appreciate them. My curiosity comes from not understanding, therefore I question. In questioning, what I really want to know is why has the photographer chosen to click click click. I did not ask directly but that was mainly my aim.
    I come here to learn as much as to enjoy great photography so when something challenging like this comes around I take it as an opportunity to learn.

    I clicked on the link about Machiel Botman and something written there resonated with your work:

    “Machiel Botman has always photographed as a way to understand life. He is not restrained by photographic conventions, but rather welcomes mistakes and surprises that combine with the highly personal nature of his subjects to create”

    I have never seen his work but I like what he wrote about your work here.
    What you have answered and that quote I posted are making me understand more and more.

    One more question….#8 is from your Nigerian project. So I take it that this is an ongoing project within projects?

  • Elena,

    I don’t have a problem with your work per se…..is just that the intellect is getting in the way of the essence.
    I like #11 very much. I like the essay overall and I’m liking it even more with you giving insights into some of the shots.

  • I don’t get to see this kind of noisy work much elsewhere, so it’s good to know I can come here to Burn and see it again and again. So good to see noise again.

    In my own work I’m quite conservative when it comes to strong saturated colors, so it’s inspiring to see someone who challenges my view on that.

    Favourite: #15

    Good luck with more mystical journeys.

    // Bjarte

  • John Updike’s rules for literary criticism:

    1. Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.

    2. Give him enough direct quotation—at least one extended passage—of the book’s prose so the review’s reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.

    3. Confirm your description of the book with quotation from the book, if only phrase-long, rather than proceeding by fuzzy précis.

    4. Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending.

    5. If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s ouevre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?

    To these concrete five might be added a vaguer sixth, having to do with maintaining a chemical purity in the reaction between product and appraiser. Do not accept for review a book you are predisposed to dislike, or committed by friendship to like. Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in an idealogical battle, a corrections officer of any kind. Never, never (John Aldridge, Norman Podhoretz) try to put the author “in his place,” making him a pawn in a contest with other reviewers. Review the book, not the reputation. Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys in reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end.

  • Carlo…

    the picture n.8 doesn`t belong to the Nigerian project. Even if it’s strictly connected, because related to it in the subject matter: the prostitution theme. In a way it anticipated the research I realized about Nigerian trafficking.

    Here I was supposed to spend some time with Noemi,a Brazilian transvestite working in Turin, that I had the chance to meet during my lonely excursions through the city. He was ready to fly to London to become a woman passing through a surgery operation.

    Here the surreal element got my attention: we have a female, in a sexy dress, coming from a sunny and warm paradise, in the middle of the foggy Turin, during an anonymous autumn day, waiting for a client. The contrast between his been female and male together, between his light dress and the cold environment, the perspective of a reality that is never like it appears, seduced me again.

  • Paul

    We don’t need to, like, or get, everything. This is probably a good thing.

    How would I tell good jazz from bad jazz? As I’ve noted before, as an amateur musician, I love music, all kinds of music, but jazz…I just don’t get. I can wrap my head around some of it, but I’d rather have a root canal done than be subjected to Coltrane for any extended period. I’m reminded of the famous Fats Waller quote “If you got to ask, you ain’t got it”.

    Sometimes maybe we try too hard.

  • Elena,

    Thanks again for answering and being so engaged! I really appreciate it.
    What you have disclosed about that shot to me puts it in a whole different ball park! GREAT!
    It does not need an explanation but knowing the story behind it gives it even more dimension.
    Not so much who she/he is but what made you take the shot.

  • I think that’s excellent work by the way. Perfect combination of strong story and compelling interpretation of color and light. What’s not to understand? #4 perhaps, but other than that, it’s all pretty clear.

  • Well, given the erratic internet connection I have here in India, a connection that can sometimes zip like lightning and other times crawl like a stoned slug – that being the case right now – I have so far been able to view only one photo – the opener.

    And I love it.

    I can’t comment on the rest, but #1 is great and gives me a feeling of optimism about what will follow, maybe not until I return to Alaska in three weeks. I will look at the Nigeria work then, too.

  • When each frame,
    Has its own narrative…
    That’s what I like about this…
    Bob B where are you?

  • Elena…

    It’s been great to hear what are thoughts behind some of these images. It really has helped me out with getting to grips with your essay.
    BTW this way or style of taking pictures is it easy for you or is it a considered approach? Something you have to be very aware of?

  • Paul….

    The pictures you’ve seen in the series above have been realized with a Leica M6. I love the surprise effect that analogical photography allows you to keep. I am not a technical photographer: constantly aware of what is going on in terms of aperture and shutter speed. I prefer to deal with emotions. So it happens many times that you are there to observe a detail that got your attention, or a change of expression on somebody’s face… and all in a sudden you know that you have to press the camera button. Because something that was not obvious at first happened in front of you. It won’t last for more than a few seconds and you need to have it.

    In the editing process, when you actually look at the pictures and decide what is going to stay and what is going to leave, you can see if the things you saw are still there or not. Sometimes the miracle happens, sometimes it doesn’t.

    Maybe you took four-five shots of the same image and at the end you realize the strongest one is the blurred one. Not because is blurred, but because is the most powerful, considering what you wanted to say. It’s not something planned in advance.

  • Paul…

    I don`t know if I answered your question…

  • Very interesting, esp as I’m trying to train myself to shoot looser. Textures and colors and shapes can speak if you let them.

    The only two that don’t work for me are #19 (too obviously a performance shot) and 21 (only due to the abrupt lack of color). Congrats Elena and continue on….


  • Elena…

    Thank you for answering my question and yes your explanation has helped me. Of course it’s all down to emotions, sounds so simple but so very easy to miss.

  • Overall reaction is that I find it interesting and refreshing to see a set of images that have not only embraced digital noise, but use it as tool. As a general principle, I dislike digital noise (being composed of squares and not circles it will never be beautiful as film grain) but when used consistently, and in combination with soft focus compositions, it works well and is indeed painterly.

    I question the inclusion of the Eggleston/Parr-esque #4 image… seems out of place with the series… And including one B&W #21 is a bit odd although I like the image – because this series is so clearly about using color and seeing color…

    Images #1, #7, and #15 are real standouts to me! I think the series needs a bit tighter edit… However, though the group perhaps lacks cohesiveness, the emotion behind the images is consistent and comes through beautifully. Thanks Elena and best of luck with your ongoing work.

  • Elena,

    I very much appreciate and understand the use of loose technique to portray energy, edginess, and a degree of threat. But in my opinion you’ve let such a style seduce you and it has overwhelmed and obscured your story. There’s little evidence that you really have mastery of the craft.

    Just my opinion.

  • First time I saw this I was a little “confused”, not sure it is the correct word. I did not really understood it. And I decided to look again. Again confused but attracted enough to see one more time. Now I have to say that I did not really understand it (from a rational point of view) but it gives me emotion. And I think photography is also about emotion. And curiosity, like N° 1 produces when I look at. And N° 16. personally I’m not so sure about 4 and 19 which are too exact, not enough place for fantasy. or 14. But it is an interesting essay, an interesting use of the photographic instrument, specially in times like the ones in which we are living so full of “clinical” photography, taken in low light at so many thousands iso. Photography is emotion, brava Elena.

  • Hopefully Elena will correct me if I’m wrong, but this piece seems on some level to be about prostitution. It’s not obvious, but it’s not that difficult to discern either. That’s what I like so much about it. Having a deep love for subtle interactions of light and color is a wonderful thing, but when paired with such a deeply human story it becomes so much more than a mere exercise in aesthetics.

  • It is about prostitution. Even more it`s about body language and sexuality. Which is something that fundamentally characterizes us as human beings, at such a deep level. It seems to me that sometimes we just forget about it.

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